For Eagleton, the choice facing us is between the Tragic Humanists and the Liberal Humanists.
He groups the new-atheists in with the conservatives (whatever local shape they take) and basically the whole mainstream of Western culture as part of the liberal humanists. They are those people who think that humanity can overcome the challenges we face if only X, Y or Z is achieved. So for Dawkins it is the evacuation of delusion from our minds. For Hitchens it is his belief in the triumph of reason over faith. For a guy I was chatting with this week it is the decade or so of research that will allow us to go carbon neutral. Whether your poison is the free market or democracy or even the expansion of Christendom, if you think that there is a silver bullet, simple or byzantine in complexity, that will allow humanity to transcend our difficulties, then welcome to the LIBERAL HUMANIST camp!
The tragic humanists are those who consider the difficulties that humanity faces today and ultimately concludes that while it is important to try to overcome, we are actually defined in our failing, not our transcending. Sounds a bit pessimistic, eh? In actuality, it is a profoundly liberating and life celebrating approach and I consider myself amongst this number. In previous generations I might be able to describe it as roughly in the camp of Christian thought, or Augustinian thought or most prone to misunderstanding of all: Calvinist. But today I would call myself a tragic humanist because otherwise you might think I am a deluded and unreasonable killjoy!
For Eagleton our choice is not between something and nothing (as the liberal humanists have it: either reason or delusion / either democracy or slavery / either the free market or stagnation and so on) but between two different kinds of nothing.
The actual end result of all the liberal humanisms is nothingness, after all. The quest to extend democracy to every corner of the Earth ends in coercion and tyranny. The quest to expand the operating sphere for free markets ends in collapse and the massive imbalance of funds in the hands of an oligarchy. The quest to root out delusion and embrace Enlightenment reason falls on its own swords as its hope is revealed as a faith and hence by its own rules, delusional. And so on.
The nothingness that is offered by the tragic humanists is of a different nature. That is the nothingness of a Kierkegaardian leap into the darkness, the jump out into the void in the hope that we might land in the midst of something a whole lot more. (This is an example of the Lacanian Real that is so central for Eagleton (and Zizek): that which acknowledges the void within us also transcends the void.) It is the letting go of Self that is the only option available as we search for a fulfilled Self. It is what Jesus describes as, in words that have never been bettered, the dying that must be done by those who want to live.
Your choice is not between something and nothing. It is between two kinds of nothingness. One promises much and ends up in self abnegation. The other promises you nothing because you have no idea where it will take you. But it is only down that path that you can hope to find anything. It is because of this argument that Eagleton unleashes his most potent claim:
SOMETHING WILL ONLY COME FROM NOTHING
The leap of the tragic humanist is the leap into the dead end. The ultimate dead-end, the definitive tragedy, was the Cross. It was the veil shattering tragedy that must be endured, Christ must throw himself into it for the Resurrection to exist. Only the authentic tragedy of Eloi Eloi! as the final word permits the new word of Easter Sunday.
Something came from nothing in the beginning. Something came from nothing on Easter Sunday morning. And our only hope is not the State nor the market nor reason but that something will come from nothing. Join the tragic humanists. If nothing else, we have all the best poets because liberal humanists don’t see any utility in an art form that doesn’t sell anymore.
Your Correspondent, With crankiness in his heart